The Darkest Minds: YA Dystopia Has Probably Run Its Course
This summer I wanted to see at least a couple movies that weren’t big blockbusters or sequels or franchises (all the same category, these days), and it seems to be getting harder and harder. There were a couple of smaller science fiction movies, and there are always a few limited release indie SF films floating around—trouble is, they don’t always make it to my area (I really wanted to track down How to Talk to Girls at Parties, based on the Neil Gaiman story, and wasn’t able to do so). Original options on various streaming platforms have been underwhelming. (I saw The Titan on Netflix, and can safely warn you: Don’t, it reaches toward vast new levels of terrible.) Mind you, the franchise offerings I saw—Solo and Ant-Man and The Wasp—were delightful and satisfying as chapters in their respective things. But the search for the new and interesting continues. The Darkest Minds wasn’t it, alas.
I need to start this review with a warning that I wouldn’t have thought of a year, or even six months ago. There’s a scene early on in The Darkest Minds in which large numbers of children are loaded on to busses and driven into government-run camps. When the film was being made, when the novel by Alexandra Bracken was published in 2012, I imagine the thinking went something like, “What is the most dystopian thing we can think of, how unbelievably extreme can we make this look?” Now here we are, after a summer of the U.S. government bussing children to camps, a scene that was supposed to be creepy and unbelievable was instead upsetting. The film moves pretty quickly into standard cliché YA dystopia-with-superpowers territory. But consider this a heads-up that cliché YA dystopia is apparently more relevant than many of us would like it to be.
The Darkest Minds is about a world in which a terrible disease has killed nearly all children. The survivors have superpowers, and are rounded up by the government, ostensibly to be cured, in reality to be used. The powers are rated by color according to their threat level—which is explained to the audience in the most awkward of expository lumps, thereby setting the tone for the whole film. And if you think the accompanying chart looks like it was photoshopped from the Homeland Security threat level chart, well . . . “Greens” have advanced intelligence, “Yellows” can control electricity, “Blues” have telekinesis. “Oranges” and “Reds” are the most dangerous of all and are immediately killed. Our hero Ruby hides her status as an Orange, using her incredible mental powers to control minds and convince everyone she’s a Green. Six years later, Ruby escapes with the help of a sympathetic doctor who is part of an organization hoping to rescue children from the horrors of the camp. But Ruby suspects their motives, runs away, and meets three other super-powered teens: Liam, Charles, and Zu. They are searching for East River, a haven for escaped children led by a mysterious and powerful leader, the Slip Kid.
My favorite part of the movie is when the teens are on the run in a stolen van. The four main actors have a good rapport, and the characters’ adventures are engaging, despite an awkward and forced teen romance between Ruby and Liam. Then they reach East River, where they discover that the Slip Kid is actually Clancy Gray, the President’s son and most famous survivor of the plague. And he’s clearly going to turn out to be evil because he’s wearing a shirt with a collar. Also, he’s the only other surviving Orange besides Ruby, and he has plans for her powers. Things continue predictably after that. Just to show us how villainous Clancy is, he tries to rape Ruby. This is a perfect example of a time when adding rape to a story feels excessive—we know Clancy is up to no good, the attempted rape just lays it on even thicker.
I have to give the film a little credit for hanging a lantern on its own tropes. During a party at the camp, Ruby observes that the telekinetically-controlled floating lanterns make this place look “just like Hogwarts.” Liam replies, “I guess that makes you Harry Potter.” Yes, painfully on-the-nose dialog that characterizes the entire film, I guess it does.
So yes, Ruby is the Chosen One that these stories always feature, which leads to some decidedly mixed signals. We’re told repeatedly that all the “colors” are equal (that painfully on-the-nose dialog again), that they shouldn’t be treated differently, that they should all get along. And then Ruby is told how special she is, how powerful she is. This is something of a paradox—Ruby can’t be extra special and also be egalitarian. It’s a paradox most stories of this genre don’t try to navigate. Usually, the Chosen One is Super Special and Amazing and that’s that.
Comparisons to the X-Men are obvious, and during the climactic battle Clancy echoes Magneto’s declaration of mutant superiority just as Liam and the others preach Professor X’s ideal that they all ought to be able to live in peace. Borrow from the best, we’re told, and the trope of children with superpowers on the run is a classic. (I thought of Escape to Witch Mountain, along with everything else this movie reminded me of.) The superhero action, particularly Liam’s telekinesis, is another of the film’s strengths. The film’s weakness is a lack of depth. I have a lot of questions about this terrible disease that has killed most children and left the survivors with the typical array of superpowers. Are there new children being born? Are they affected? What is happening with, well, everything? What’s happening in the rest of the world? Or is this just in the U.S.? Children of Men, one of the best SF movies of the last dozen years or so, focused on an image of a world without children. The Darkest Minds makes gestures toward this with an empty landscape and a throwaway line about everyone living in cities now. But the film isn’t interested in that world as anything but a way to set up everything else. The dystopia and how it got there is an excuse for giving us the X-Men meets Red Dawn. Or maybe Lord of the Flies.
The PG-13 rating is an interesting choice for a film that seems just a little bit Disney and aimed at kids, as this one clearly is. The film earns it, racking up quite the body count and a notable amount of on-screen violence. Ruby herself is responsible for quite a few of those bodies, with no reflection on the consequences of killing. (One of the things I love about The Hunger Games, the chief of all modern YA dystopia fiction, is that it’s pretty much all about the personal toll of Katniss’s actions and the deaths she causes. It’s a post-Vietnam reframing of heroism as trauma.) In one scene, Ruby commands Lady Jane, a bounty hunter played by a criminally underused Gwendoline Christie, to walk into the forest and never stop. And I thought—our protagonist is Kilgrave? The villain of Jessica Jones who can command anyone to do anything, including killing themselves in horrific and gruesome ways? Because what Ruby does to Lady Jane is something Kilgrave would do. I kept waiting for the film to go back to Lady Jane, or to at least have a moment when Ruby questions herself. That moment never happens. It doesn’t matter how carefully the film demonstrates that the villains are awful and deserving of the terrible deaths Ruby inflicts on them. She controls minds. She erases memories. When a minor argument breaks out between Charles and another kid in the camp, Ruby casually changes the mind of the other kid. So this is how we’ll all live together in peace, I guess? Charles recognizes what she does and gives a bit of a side-eye, but Ruby’s use of her power, the idea that her power is violating the rights and autonomy of others—might we even call it mental rape?—is never confronted.
This is what I mean about lack of depth. This story touches on some interesting ideas, and then breezes past them, relying instead on the genre’s familiar tropes to carry it. The Darkest Minds doesn’t really end so much as peter out, as Ruby decides to leave her friends and stands before a crowd of super-powered teens getting ready for war, as their obvious leader. Because while everyone is equal, some are more equal than others. This sets us up for an obvious, inevitable sequel—we’re carefully shown that Clancy survived the big climactic battle. I will not be going to see it.
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